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Salcombe Cannon

Location: Prawle Point Salcombe, Devon
Age / period: post medieval (mid 17th century)
List entry number: 1000074
Reason for designation: archaeological potential

Wreck history and loss

The main site at Salcombe encompasses the remains of a 17th century armed trading ship whose origin is unconfirmed. The finds on the site are very unusual and seem to indicate a cargo of North African origin; however, the shipboard items are consistent with an origin in the Low Countries, probably Holland. This may provide evidence of trade connections with North Africa via the Low countries or even represent an Islamic merchant ship, previously unknown in UK waters.

The artefacts date to the mid-17th century and historical evidence suggests that there was regular trade in gold from North Africa at this time. Only one piece of timber has been found on the site, though it is possible that more ship structure may be located.

Additionally a group of Bronze Age finds have been located to the South east of the main wreck site. Some of the artefacts originally thought to have been from the 17th century wreck have been re-examined and placed within this assemblage. This is particularly important due to the location of the site adjacent to the Bronze Age site of Moor Sand.

Discovery and investigation

The site was located in the early 1990s by the licensees of the nearby Erme Estuary and Erme ingot sites who noted the presence of cannon in gullies cut into the seabed. In 1994 the South West Marine Archaeology Group (SWMAG) team dived on the cannon site and unexpectedly found a number of exposed gold items. They immediately began archaeologically recording and recovering the objects from the seabed due to the risk of other divers removing the artefacts. The site was designated in 1997 and the artefacts were handed over to the British museum for investigation. The less vulnerable cannon and anchors remain on the seabed.

The Bronze Age finds were discovered in 2004 when the team were attempting to determine the limits of the cannon site. These finds were also excavated due to their vulnerable nature and passed on to the British museum.


The 17th century assemblage contains the largest number (over 400) of Islamic gold coins ever found in the UK. Analysis of the coins by Venetia Porter of the British Museum has indicated a Moroccan origin, with Marrakech as the dominant mint mainly dating to the rulers Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603) and his son Zaydan (1608-27). The two latest coins, which provide a terminus post quem for the site, are from the reign of al-Walid (1631-6). The assemblage also contains Islamic jewellery, probably of Moroccan origin, including gold earrings and pendants and gold finger ingots. Much of the gold had been deliberately cut suggesting that it was being traded as a bullion hoard.

Finds also included; ceramics from Portugal, Holland and Germany from 1580-1650; a pewter bowl and spoons, probably Dutch and dating to a similar period; lead weights; a European brass seal and two copper non-Islamic coins, one of which was from Friesland, dated 1627. One particularly unusual item recovered was a very ornate, Baroque clay tobacco pipe, virtually in tact. This is likely to be of Dutch origin and exhibits a number of rare features, dated to 1635-1645. The finds are currently all held in the British Museum.

The recent 25 Bronze Age finds include rapier blades, palstaves, clips, a cauldron handle and a gold torc. Like the Moor Sand assemblage much of the objects are of a French Origin and date to around 1300 BC and many are of an unusual quality of preservation. These finds are currently being assessed by Stuart Needham at the British Museum.

Further work

The site is monitored on a regular basis and it is anticipated that further work will be carried out to establish any links between the Bronze Age finds and those of the neighbouring Moor Sand site. Analysis of all the finds is being undertaken by the British Museum.

For further information visit the South West Maritime Archaeological Group (SWMAG)

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